This writer / psychotherapist has been honing her skills as a writer since childhood and currently has two novels published, Deliria (1993, Serpent’s Tail) which was published in England only, and The Rhythm of the Road (2007, St. Martin’s Press). She currently resides in London, England. Enjoy her views on writing and the writing life.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Albyn Hall: I don’t think I ever decided to be a writer as such. There was always a love of books in my family, a love of literature and a pleasure taken in words. I hesitate to say that I was born a writer, that it was in my blood. I was dreamy, an only child until I was thirteen and I lived very much in my head. I was probably more comfortable with imaginary friends than real ones. But then, I suppose you can argue that most children have a highly developed sense of fantasy, a curiosity about the Unseen or Other, until it’s bred out of them. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to write stories, and encouraged my powers of observation.
When did I know I was a writer? Probably when other people told me I was – parents, teachers. I might have been seven or eight when I had some sense that writing was what I did. Before that, I may have been writing without knowing I was writing. In some ways, I think that must have been a freer place, those very young years; writing without the imposition of the label. But some people in particular were extremely supportive, especially during those painful pubescent years – writing became a refuge, the one thing I was able to do. The other day, I was told that a former teacher of mine recently died, and though I haven’t seen her for about twenty-five years, I was distraught– she was one of the people who had faith in my writing even when I doubted it.
I don’t know if I was good writer as a child or adolescent. I expect that my writing didn’t really take off until my late twenties, and even then I wrote some things that weren’t terribly good. But I’ve always been an intensely curious person and I suppose that has kept the work fresh and twitchy, even when it wasn’t good or ‘literary’ as such. It’s important to be nosy, for any kind of writer.
Moe: What inspires you?
Albyn Hall: This is a difficult one. So many things inspire me, and not just literary things. Films have always been paramount – I virtually grew up in the cinema. And music! An amazing piece of music – of any genre – can fill my head with as many shapes, stories and colors as books. In Rhythm of the Road, I often write about music, or people’s relationship to it.
I’m quite a character-driven writer, so most of my work begins with a question about human nature. I’m more interested in why we do the things we do – all the bizarre, crazy, funny, destructive things we do – than in a clever story or plot. For me, the greatest dramas are the ones that occur all around us, every day; on the street, on buses, in our own homes even. I can be as inspired by a conversation I overhear at newspaper stand as by some epic war or caper. There is magic in the (apparently) ordinary.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Albyn Hall: It may be worth your while to check out an article I wrote that’s floating around the net just now: it’s called “How to Begin a Novel; The Willingness to be the Best and the Worst.” In this article, I discuss in detail some of my writing methods, as well as the little tricks I use to coax myself when I feel stuck or blocked.
As I’m a psychotherapist as well, I tend to write in the mornings and see clients in the afternoon. But writing doesn’t just stop when you pull away from the computer. The more immersed I am in a novel, the more my head buzzes with it. I’ve done some of my best preparatory or mental writing walking on Hampstead Heath or in my favorite local café.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Albyn Hall: This is difficult to say, as I’ve written a number of books (only two published) all of varying lengths. Rhythm of the Road took a long time – over five years to write. Generally, I’d take half that time, but I’m glad I spent these years writing Rhythm of the Road. It was a great meandering journey and I was nearly sad when it was over – in some ways, I miss it still.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Albyn Hall: No, and it would be inhibiting for me to think that way. I appreciate that there are certain writers who are genre-driven – particularly, say, crime or thriller writers. But for me, the less I think of my ‘market’ – as well as other aspects of publication – the better! When embarking on a novel, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. It’s a great unknown, and I want the freedom to soar off that cliff with no idea where I’m heading. I want to be as surprised by my work as any reader would be – to let my own story and characters tell me where to go.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Albyn Hall: I’m an avid fan of research. My research for Rhythm of the Road brought me into contact with an eclectic group of people and interests: truck drivers, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, police in both England and America, psychiatrists, stalking experts and victims of stalking, guns, musicians, bluegrass festivals, life on the road, the Mojave Desert… a real adventure. Research helps to put a human face on a topic, as well as to maintain a connectedness to others and the world. One occupational hazard of being a writer is the tendency to become cut-off, insular, self-absorbed. Research is a great way of taking in fresh experiences, of giving life blood to your work. Of course, not everybody is as aggressive a researcher as I am; it depends on what you’re comfortable with. Some writers refer book or archival research to people; whatever works.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Albyn Hall: Rhythm of the Road is by no means an autobiographical novel, not in a literal sense. I’ve found that as I get older, I’ve become less interested in my own story, and less desperate for the world to hear it. I’d rather explore the lives of people with whom I’ve nothing obvious in common. Having said that, the characters of a novel are similar to the people in your dreams; they all reflect facets of the author, if only unconscious ones. On the surface, for instance, I have little in common with Jo, a young truck driver’s daughter. But she hails from some part of my psyche; she is, as it were, of my loins.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Albyn Hall: I’m a little iffy about the term “writer’s block,” because it implies something concrete and separate from oneself. There are certainly days on which I don’t feel like writing, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest the terminal block. I hate rough drafts, so you could say for the very early stages of writing, I could be blocked every day. It’s like that Hemingway quote: “The hardest thing about writing a novel is cleaning out your refrigerator.” (Or something like that – I’m paraphrasing.) The important thing during these times is to just keep at it, a little bit each day. I have an hour max rule of rather than trying to write, say, four or six hours minimum, I may only write a maximum of one hour. Under these guidelines, five minutes is still a full working day! Of course, once I progress, it gradually becomes far more than that.
In my experience of myself and other writers, I think that the notorious ‘block’ is often borne out of a psychological resistance; something you don’t want to face within yourself and hence on the page. Writing groups are very useful for this; I don’t know where I’d be without my own writing group. We often discuss the problems we have and how to overcome our own hurtles and resistance. Often, the ‘block’ just comes from a lack of faith in oneself, the belief that the work isn’t any good. The best panacea for this is to just let the work be bad for a while! That’s what first drafts are all about. Being ‘good’ doesn’t matter when you begin a new piece of work. Being brave – facing the demons, spewing it out even when you think it’s drivel –that’s what matters.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learnt about the business of writing since your first publication?
Albyn Hall: A) I’ve had a considerable gap between the two books, and this time, there seems to be far more emphasis on self-promotion, especially on the internet. When my first book came out I didn’t have to do any of my own publicity; not so this time. Publishing, like every other industry, has become far more corporate; I never even heard expressions like “branding yourself” in the 90’s!
B) It’s virtually impossible to sell a novel without an agent now. Most publishers will not even look at unsolicited manuscripts.
C) Quite simply, it’s harder to get published at all. Publishers seem to want proof that a novel will sell, and they seem to want it to fit into a highly specific niche or marketing bracket. This was always somewhat true but seems particularly pronounced now; hence there are fewer publishers taking risks on new writers.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Albyn Hall: Rhythm of the Road is a book that exists on several levels. In literal terms, it’s about Jo, a truck driver’s daughter who grows up on the road with her father. They live in a fantasy world, an escapist pastiche of Americana and country music, which is all the more ironic given they live and drive on the English motorways – it’s rather as though they’re searching for the American dream in England. When they give a lift to a young hitch-hiker, rising country singer Cosima, Jo becomes obsessed with her, eventually following her to California and escaping from the only life she knows.
On a deeper level, the book is about sadness and madness and wanting to be someone other than who you are. It’s also about the relationship between England and America.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Albyn Hall: Nothing too radical: I love cinema and theatre, gigs and galleries. I’m quite a sociable person so I enjoy my friends. I like smart restaurants but I’m as happy in seedy dives. I play Irish fiddle, pretty badly. I love cities, even the ugly bits – I love London. Not one for camping out and I probably get slightly phobic if I’m in the country for too long, though I love the sea. I like Arsenal – English football (soccer) team. I like getting on trains and not knowing where I’ll end up. I have a friend with whom I do this sometimes – no place is the wrong place.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Albyn Hall: It’s a good question. I’m a therapist as well as a writer, but I probably wouldn’t be just that. I love music but I think I’ll always be a better fan than a musician. I’ve always been interested in politics but I don’t think I’d have the discipline to be a good politician. I enjoy teaching – both writing and psychotherapy. But when it comes right down to it, I can’t imagine myself not being a writer any more than I can imagine myself missing an arm!
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Albyn Hall: Gosh, hard to say – I like “mellifluous.” I like “visceral” and “lascivious.” “Serendipity” is rather nice. “Doolally” isn’t bad, though I rarely hear non-Irish people use it.
- The Rhythm of the Road is available from Amazon.com.
- The Rhythm of the Road is available from Amazon.ca.
My interview with Albyn Leah Hall was originally published 1/10/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.